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Orimulsion: Pembroke Power Station

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 17 April 1996

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2.41 p.m.

In the light of the "Sea Empress" disaster, what additional safeguards to the Milford Haven waterway will be put in place before they give their consent to the application by National Power to burn orimulsion at the Pembroke power station.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the final decision whether to allow the power station to burn orimulsion is for the President of the Board of Trade. Permission will not be given unless all the other regulators are satisfied. The jetty alongside the power station requires planning permission, which is subject to environmental assessment. The Secretary of State for Transport must consent to the jetty proposals to safeguard navigation in the Haven. A licence is also required from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to protect the marine environment.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that, although my countrymen welcome the increase in economic activity that the use of orimulsion will bring, they are apprehensive about the plans of the Milford Haven Port Authority whereby it will carry out its statutory duties while also owning and operating the planned orimulsion jetty? I know that this is the common practice of many ports up and down the country but it is new to Milford Haven. Will my noble friend please review the management structure of the Milford Haven Port Authority to ensure that it is capable of what is an apparently conflicting duality of purpose?

My Lords, as my noble friend says, the common position is that the statutory harbour authority is also the port authority. I am confident that that arrangement works well in municipal ports, trust ports and privately owned ports. The other point to remember is that Milford Haven is not the statutory planning authority in this case.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister realises that this is an extremely important matter and that given what the people of Milford Haven and that part of Wales generally have been through recently we have to be particularly careful. I understand that orimulsion is considered a dirty fuel. Will the Minister take note of that fact, particularly following earlier debates on this and the statements made in another place by the Secretary of State for Transport? Will the Minister lay down certain conditions, such as that the fuel should be transported only in a ship with at least a double hull? Does he agree that a tug should be on duty at all times in the Milford Haven area instead of having to come from Cornwall or somewhere else? The people of that area deserve extra reassurance.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that all care should be taken, especially when reviewing the case for possible planning permission for the power station to burn orimulsion. Clearly, all precautions must be taken. I am confident that the planning process and all the different planning hoops that have to be gone through, including that of environmental assessment, will take full consideration of the nature of the orimulsion fuel. Another point is that for technical reasons orimulsion is generally carried in double-hulled tankers so that its temperature can be kept above that of seawater.

My Lords, is not this particular area under discussion for designation as a special conservation area? If that is so—I am sure that the Minister will tell me if I am wrong—should not a special approach be required from somebody other than the port authority? Can the Minister say why it appears that someone has been dragging their feet on the question of this designation?

My Lords, I do not think that there has been any dragging of feet. It is true that the question of whether Milford Haven should be designated under the Habitats Directive is currently under consideration, but I hope that I explained in my Answer that, because of all the planning controls that have to be gone through, I do not believe that there is a difficulty in Milford Haven Port Authority being both the operator and the statutory authority. Furthermore, that is the normal situation with port authorities.

My Lords, I know that the Minister is aware, following a meeting that we had earlier this year after the "Sea Empress" disaster, of the environmental sensitivity of the planning application, but will he now consider whether it is appropriate for the whole area of Milford Haven to be designated as a demonstration area for integrated coastal zone management? Will the Minister comment on the successful efforts of the statutory and voluntary bodies in the area in reducing the impact of the appalling pollution?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the work that has been done. I believe that the clean-up operation has been extremely successful. Huge amounts of resources, equipment and personnel have been involved in making sure that the beaches are as clean as possible. A concentrated effort was made before Easter which I believe has been effective, although some residual work remains to be done. Generally, there has been a huge improvement in the quality of the beaches and most of the pollution has been dealt with. I shall investigate the noble Lord's first point and write to him about it.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that too frequently our coastline suffers from a major oil tanker disaster; that the present penalties are not enough of a deterrent to prevent such disasters from happening; that prevention is much better than cure; and that perhaps the time has now come for science and technology to be enlisted to prevent ships which might do damage from going anywhere near our coast?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that prevention is much better than cure. A huge amount of effort has gone into just that. The comprehensive report produced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, raised 103 recommendations on how we could improve maritime safety and anti-pollution measures. We have accepted the vast bulk of those recommendations—over 91 measures. My noble friend wants to ensure that such vessels do not come near the shore. The fact is that there is an oil terminal at Milford Haven. Vessels therefore have to come into shore to deliver fuel. What we have to ensure is that all the necessary safeguards are there to prevent accidents.

My Lords, is it not a sad commentary upon our times that we should be importing that filthy fuel at the same time as closing coalmines in South Wales and elsewhere?

My Lords, as the noble Lord well knows, economic decisions have to be taken on such industries. We want our industries to be as fit and competitive as possible. Part of that is making sure that power is available at the cheapest possible price.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that orimulsion comes from Venezuela; that Venezuela's coastline is incredibly clean; and that orimulsion is far cheaper than other fuels?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to point out the cost benefits of orimulsion. Indeed, no doubt those are the same considerations as National Power has gone through in deciding to apply for permission to burn it.

My Lords, have any of the tanker accidents which have caused pollution around our shores involved ships flying the British flag?

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord offhand how many accidents there have been involving ships flying the British flag. The vessel which I am sure that the noble Lord has under consideration was flying the Liberian flag. No doubt there have been a number of problems with substandard ships. However, the initial reports suggest that in this case the quality of the vessel was not the issue. I am sure that the investigation that is currently under way will throw more light on that.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Lloyd's open form salvage conditions take sufficient account of the need for looking after the environment as opposed to merely salvaging the vessel?

My Lords, clearly, salvaging the vessel is of major importance, as is salvaging the cargo and preventing its loss into the environment, thereby causing pollution damage. The issue of salvage procedures and the way in which we carry them out will be examined by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch and will be carefully considered in any recommendations that it might make.

My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House the difference between Britain not using its own indigenous energy resources and buying in fuel from Venezuela and Britain buying beef from Argentina and closing down our beef industry? I should not like to see that occur but I shall be interested to hear the Government's explanation of the difference in treatment.

My Lords, I believe that the rest of the House takes maritime safety extremely seriously and the noble Lord's question has nothing whatever to do with that.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the promise given by the Government in the recent Welsh rural White Paper that they will listen and respond to people at grass roots, because in the case of the "Sea Empress" and orimulsion it would appear that that promise has already been broken?

My Lords, I do not accept that. We stand by the statement made in the White Paper; and the public have been able to make representations on the planning application and to the Department of Transport in connection with its consent on the jetty and the navigational circumstances concerned.